Hopes and homes subject to seizure on Katrina s anniversary
We have to watch the redevelopment in New Orleans for a lot of reasons, and
one of them is to make sure that the shadow government of the rich and the
powerful does not end up abusing eminent domain to take property that
belongs to poor people in order to get them out of the city. U.S. Rep.
Maxine Waters, San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 21, 2005
by Stephen Bradberry and Jeffrey Buchanan
The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 29, 2006, should be a
day to remember our commitments to our fellow Americans and mourn our
collective losses. It should be a day to reflect on what we as American
citizens expect from our government in our most dire hour of need. It
should be a time to honor the courage of the hundreds of thousands of still
displaced Katrina survivors as they struggle to return home one year after
the storm broke land.
Instead of commemorating the disaster, Mayor Ray Nagin and the New Orleans
City Council have callously chosen the one-year anniversary of Katrina to
begin a policy that will demolish what little hope displaced, largely
African American, families have of returning to their city. In May, the New
Orleans City Council unanimously passed City Ordinance #26031, which sets a
deadline for homeowners to gut their homes or potentially lose them.
By Aug. 29, homeowners who have not been able to make the necessary repairs
to their battered homes risk having their property seized by eminent domain
and bulldozed by the city. The Council s decision will further cleanse New
Orleans of its African American low and middle income families, continuing
the exclusion and discrimination that have become hallmarks of the
But the survivors of Katrina are not alone. Although the government is not
fulfilling its obligations, many non-governmental organizations are trying
to help survivors. Groups like the Association of Community Organizations
for Reform Now are working around the clock to save homes from demolition
and enforce a principle of fairness and inclusion in the disaster recovery
Many working-class families cannot return to New Orleans to prevent their
homes from being seized. Most are still waiting to receive payment from
insurance claims and are unable to pay the roughly $10,000 charged by
contractors to gut their home, nor can they afford to take time off to gut
their homes themselves.
Low-income families in New Orleans could now lose their homes before
receiving a dime from the federal government s $7.5 billion in community
block grants to Louisiana s Road Home home repair grant program for
homeowners. Those vitally needed funds, despite being given to the state of
Louisiana months ago, remain tied up in red tape by bumbling state
bureaucrats as people in New Orleans and around the state wait in desperate
need of a helping hand.
ACORN has been able to win some relief for the working-class families who
could lose their homes. It convinced the City Council to amend City
Ordinance #26031 to make the Lower Ninth Ward a hardship case, protecting
those who were hardest hit by the failing levees from the seizure ordinance.
Compounding the injury, many of the affected homeowners are displaced,
living out of state and unaware of the home demolition policy. Getting
information is very difficult for the more than 200,000 former residents of
New Orleans, mostly working class African-American families, who are still
spread across 44 different states.
Most have no way of knowing the current state of their homes and
neighborhoods basic issues like whether the water and electricity are
running or whether their local schools are open. The overwhelming majority
of relevant government decisions, including this ordinance, do not make it
into the national news reports or local broadcasts in their new communities.
The City appears oblivious to the crippling lack of information in this
crisis. It believes it does not need to directly contact homeowners in
accordance with due process, required by the U.S. Constitution, before it
can begin seizing property.
After being sued for attempting to bulldoze homes in the Lower Ninth Ward
last December, the City of New Orleans settled with local groups by
pledging to post seizure information on the City website and in New Orleans
daily newspaper, the Times Picayune, to fulfill due process requirements.
Never mind that most affected displaced people live outside of the Times
Picayune s distribution area and may not have an internet connection.
Displaced families, without actually being notified, will remain completely
in the dark as they lose their homes.
ACORN is currently fighting to win protection for families whose properties
are listed on gutting lists, as well as fighting for real legal
notification for displaced homeowners and a more realistic timeline to
clean out homes.
Since December, ACORN has helped survivors by gutting more than 1,500
homes. ACORN is offering families at no cost the service of gutting and
preserving their home. ACORN is also arranging for homes to be adopted by
donors, thus covering gutting costs for low-income families. ACORN has also
been recruiting volunteers and organizations to New Orleans this summer to
help save the homes.
If a foreign government began seizing the homes of vulnerable disaster
victims especially without notification in an area where the U.S. is
providing disaster relief, the U.S. government would not just stand on the
sidelines. The State Department and U.S. Agency for International
Development have significant programs supporting the protection of the
rights of internally displaced people (IDPs) the term for those displaced
from their homes to a different part of their country by a disaster in
areas like post-tsunami Sri Lanka.
American diplomats lobby other nations to uphold internationally accepted
principles for IDPs that assure things like property and possessions left
behind by IDPs should be protected against destruction and arbitrary and
illegal appropriation, occupation or use. USAID also runs programs assuring
displaced people have the right to information about what is going on in
their former communities. By some twisted logic, the U.S. government and
the New Orleans mayor and City Council must think it s acceptable that
Americans be excluded from such rights.
Despite these obstacles, New Orleans will begin seizing not just houses
from devastated communities but also the hopes of thousands of residents
returning home on the anniversary of our nation s greatest tragedy. City
Ordinance #26031 is proof that the interests and human rights of the now
disenfranchised displaced victims of the storm are no longer respected in
their former communities or by the federal government.
Though the human rights situation in New Orleans remains woeful, there is
still a chance to salvage the hopes of these struggling families and to
save their homes. You can help honor the upcoming one year anniversary of
Hurricane Katrina even if the New Orleans City Council and the federal
government refuse to by pledging to volunteer or donate to help community
organizations like ACORN in New Orleans.
If you are displaced from New Orleans or know someone who is, call ACORN
now at 1 (800) 239-7379, ext. 187, to begin the process of saving your home
by putting it on the clean-out list. Other organizations providing free
house gutting and also seeking volunteers and donations are listed on the
City of New Orleans website, www.cityofno.com. They include Common Ground,
(504) 312-1731; United Methodist Recovery, (504) 461-0425; Catholic
Charities, (504) 895-5439; and United Church of Christ, (504) 258-7306.
Stephen Bradberry, firstname.lastname@example.org, is head organizer for ACORN New
Orleans and recipient of the 2005 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
Jeffrey Buchanan, Buchanan@rfkmemorial.org, is communications officer,
Center for Human Rights, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, www.rfkmemorial.org.